Hello colleagues—Kolleagues?—and whoever else who has happened to find this post. It’s an odd time to be writing about research—something that has most certainly taken a back seat in these stressful and alien circumstances. But it on occasion also serves as a welcome distraction from said circumstances. That, and nursing all my new hobbies. Like tending to the new horticultural additions to the house. Or making another batch of pappardelle using the new pasta machine. Or taking care of the new sourdough starter. Who else is having a go at naturally leavened pâte feuilletée this weekend?
But I’m sure you’re not here to read about my lockdown culinary projects. Nevertheless, since you can find out more about my overarching research interests and projects elsewhere on this website, I thought I’d use this post to highlight, in more general terms, the aspects of my research that have preoccupied my thinking in recent weeks—my current research moment as it were.
It might help if I began by putting my work in terms to which we might all be able to relate. When the coronavirus first hit Europe, it precipitated a lot of doubt. How serious is the disease? If we take measures against its spread, how serious should they be? And how serious would the effects of those measures be? How seriously should we take the injunctions to self-isolate, even if we’re in demonstrably good health? In fewer words, how seriously should we take COVID-19 and its impact on myriad facets of our lives?
We’ve stopped asking these questions now, because it’s become clear that the answer to the question of how serious the COVID-19 crisis is, is ‘very’. That is the same answer to the question of how seriously we ought to take it. There is nothing unserious about a global pandemic. But taking the COVID-19 crisis seriously clearly involves understanding not only what it is—that is, a crisis revolving around a dangerously contagious, potentially lethal disease—but also what its practical consequences can be: mortality, anxiety, grieving, unemployment, displacement, insolvency. Only if we recognise the nature, the scale of the crisis, can we entertain the hope of addressing it appropriately.
An attempt to analyse such lines of thinking underpins the article I’ve been working on. My interests in that piece, however, concern not the current pandemic, but speech or writing—specifically political speech, or political writing. Let’s group these together and call them ‘political utterances’. The main question that has animated my recent work is a simple one: What does it mean to take political utterances seriously? In our capacity as researchers, we’re often asked to take a whole host of things ‘more seriously’. This could be a source; another piece of evidence; an argument; how something was expressed in a text’s original language; a hitherto neglected cause of an event; God; economic interests etc. ad infinitum. Of course, we understand that taking something seriously involves treating it with a due amount of gravity and sobriety. But there is little methodological guidance on how to do that, and why, beyond exemplifying scholarly rigour, seriousness is so self-evidently a good thing.
In my article, I therefore tried to do two things. First, I sought to spell out what it means to take an utterance seriously. To do this, I drew on the philosopher of language J. L. Austin’s theory of speech acts. I contend that successfully taking something seriously involves first successfully identifying its genre. Only then can one hope to fully grasp its meaning and implications. The second thing I tried to do in the article was to argue that when the things that we are taking seriously are political utterances, then the payoffs of taking them seriously are not only hermeneutical, but also political. This is to say that taking political utterances seriously is a good thing because it means that we understand not only their literal content—i.e. what the assemblage of words means—but also the political moves that the utterances are designed to make.
To make these points, I enlisted the help of a number of historical examples. These examples concern someone whose writings I’ve been working on for a number of years: Frederick II, King of Prussia 1740-86 (on whom my office mate Adam Storring also happens to work). Frederick kept a busy schedule governing his territories and commanding his armies, but he also wrote a great deal: verse, letters, histories, treatises, flute concerti, the lot. In my recent article, I focused on an important episode involving what is essentially a review essay by Frederick, and a rebuttal to it, by the French philosopher, man of letters, and general smart cookie Denis Diderot (1713-84). Diderot certainly took Frederick’s writings very seriously. In the episode in question, Diderot identifies a work of Frederick’s that at first glance isn’t necessarily political as one that was in fact designed to make a rather menacing political move. But it was only because he rightly identified Frederick’s utterance as a political one, that Diderot was able to respond to it adequately.
As I see it, the value of this episode is threefold. First, it helps illustrate what taking political utterances seriously looks like in practice. Second, it helps show why we need to first identify the genre of an utterance before we can interpret and then respond to it: a prerequisite to taking political utterances seriously is to recognise them as political, and to see the political move they are designed to make.
But I believe it is the third lesson that Diderot’s example offers that is the most vital. Diderot’s example shows that, the more disagreeable the issuers of political utterances, then the greater is the political urgency of sound interpretive practice—and of taking tyrants seriously. All this is to sanction the idea, commonplace in the field in which I work, that speech, or writing, is also action. If the utterances of others frustrate, disappoint, enrage, and outrage us, we ought to remember that we have the capacity to do the same with the utterances that we ourselves issue. I think this is an empowering thought.